Diversity and Democracy

Barriers to Civic Engagement for Undocumented Students

In 2001, then-Governor Gray Davis signed California Assembly Bill 540 into law. By allowing certain undocumented students to attend public colleges and universities and pay in-state tuition fees, the bill opened a gateway to higher education for some of the approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year—students who, on average, have already spent five or more years in the United States (Passel 2003).

In taking advantage of the bill, students enter precarious positions. AB 540 allows students who graduated from a California high school after at least three years of attendance to enroll in and pay resident tuition at public institutions of higher education (California community colleges, the University of California, or California State University). It does not provide federal or state financial aid, and it is not a pathway to legal status. AB 540 students are residents of the state of California for educational purposes, yet they remain undocumented (which is to say, illegal) in many other contexts. They thus face many obstacles when trying to become involved in their communities through service-learning initiatives.

These obstacles range from economic and family pressures to basic access to transportation. Because undocumented students cannot work legally, many rely on odd jobs (such as babysitting and eldercare) to generate income. Families with two working parents may require college students to care for younger siblings. These circumstances create additional demands on students’ time and limit their participation. Moreover, AB 540 students cannot legally drive, so they often opt to fulfill service learning requirements on campus rather than in the community at large.

In my work with AB 540 students at Glendale Community College, I have spoken with several students about these and other challenges they face. Their stories attest to legal, social, and psychological limitations to civic participation. One AB 540 student indicated that whenever he completed an application for off-campus community service, he worried that he would be “found out.” This stress created an additional drain on the student’s energy as he pursued his academic goals, and he thus preferred to fulfill course requirements with on-campus activities. Another student reported that when applying to become a tutor in a third-grade classroom, he found that he had to provide fingerprints and undergo background checks in order to work with children. He was forced to decline the position. More important, he realized that his dream of becoming a teacher was impossible unless he could change his legal status.

Stories like these point to the lasting psychological implications for students caught in the legal conundrum of AB 540 status. Some AB 540 students who have lived in the United States since early childhood report that their status rarely affects their daily lives. When situations like these arise and force them to confront their precarious situation, certain dormant fears reappear and childhood scars reopen. This psychological pressure prevents AB 540 students from fully engaging with their communities.

Despite these obstacles, AB 540 students are not isolated. Thanks to programs and projects implemented specifically for AB 540 students (such as campus clubs), these students have formed small but tight-knit groups. Many applicants to our AB 540 scholarship report feeling empowered by their relationships with “others like me.” As a result, they become more active participants in civic life.

Philosopher Alain de Benoist has said that “The highest measure of democracy is neither the ‘extent of freedom’ nor the ‘extent of equality,’ but rather the highest measure of participation.” Although I don’t often agree with Benoist’s political views, I think he is right on target here. I firmly believe that true democracy requires—in fact demands—that all stakeholders in any society be active participants. The challenge we face is helping our AB 540 students become empowered to do so.


Benoist, A. Quoted at www.dadalos.org/int/Demokratie/Demokratie/

Passel, J. S. 2003. Further demographic information relating to the DREAM act. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute. www.nilc.org/immlawpolicy/DREAM/

Hoover Zariani is the director of the service learning center at Glendale Community College.

Previous Issues